Why I am a socialist.

The label

Right away, there’s something wrong with this blog; it’s in the title: I hate labels! I even considered changing it. A big problem that I face is that when I say “I’m a socialist” some immediately picture me as Che Guevara in camouflage with an automatic rifle (I do have the long hair and beard, but that’s as far as that stereotype goes), or they just decide that I mean that I’m a Leninist, Communist or Marxist. Each of these descriptions could be interchanged in some settings but they are not all the same thing. Just as I have realised that a few billion people use the label ‘Christian’, from gun-toting KKK members to Universalists, and I know what I mean when I use that word (though I prefer ‘Jesus follower’ to distinguish it), so I also know what I mean when I say that I’m a socialist, and no stereotyping or preconceptions anyone else has will affect that. One thing I have learnt is that politics, and economics, like theology, are all very complex. So I’ll try to simplify things and define where I am at.

che-guevara-face-b-w-art-poster-print

Maybe if I coloured the beard blue…?

 

Firstly, I am a democratic socialist. Outside of democracy, any attempt to create a socialist utopia will fail miserably, since the will of the people must be paramount; the very basis of socialist philosophy is that all are born equal, and each human being has a right to life and liberty. Once you step beyond the bounds of democratic control, it is only inevitable that these basic rights will be undermined. Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely, as the memorable saying goes.

Stereotypes abound in all perceptions, and for socialists like me, that includes people believing that I just must subscribe to particular things, like atheism and being pro-choice. I get this from both sides, yet when I was younger and attended meetings of the Socialist Workers Party, I met others who were also religious and pro-life; almost all of the party attendees were Roman Catholic, since in Northern Ireland, a protestant is just not allowed to be left-wing (search me where that came from, and I’ll not theorise here), so they had an ingrained belief in the unborn’s right to life. Those within the party who were ‘fully paid-up’ socialists and could not even see the pro-life argument, were almost wanting to expel us from meetings for not being ‘proper’ socialists. Yeah, we’re all equal and all entitled to an opinion, but it must follow ‘the party line’ – the irony!! My political beliefs, like my theology, have many facets, but were I to plot a Venn diagram of them, my circle would lie very much over the ‘socialist’ area.

The problem

Politics is about power, when you break it down, and in whom power is vested. Money equals power, so it is safe to say that a lot of political wrangling is about just where the cash flows to. Those who have plenty of money already have power, and as we know, this can be a corrupting influence. Our modern politics were birthed in events like Magna Carta, where English nobles had suffered enough under King John, who was demanding more tributes and taxes from them to fund his desire for more wars to gain more land and power. They made him sign their bill of demands, God-appointed King or not! The rights enshrined in Magna Carta were originally for the knights and landed gentry, but such rights have filtered down through history to the rest of us commoners. Other similar documents followed, like the British Bill of Rights in 1689, which shifted power more securely into the hands of parliament from royalty, and the US Constitution was a similar attempt to establish rights of those who had subsequently rebelled against the excesses of that British parliament. And so it goes on…

Now, in 2016, practically everyone sees a broken political system in the majority of the Western world. Many commentators try to apportion blame in various sectors, and in the melee, I find myself agreeing with those of very different persuasions, particularly some Libertarians. This is because they hold the same basic belief that we are all born equal and have a right to life and liberty; we agree that there’s a lot wrong in our political system and seek to change it. Where we differ is in the method.

For me, the best way to define right-wing v. left-wing (and which has always been the definition!) is that right-wing philosophers have a belief in the right of ascension i.e. that those who are able to ascend to a higher status have shown their ‘right’ to enjoy that place of privilege, while left-wing philosophers believe in the right of anyone who contributes to society to be given an equal right to share in the rewards and profits within that society. Where there has been an imbalance of wealth, we have often seen revolutions hellbent on redistribution, and this only gives left-wing rhetoric the label of ‘theft’ since it seeks to take wealth from those who already have it. The problem is that when you have individuals who do work hard and are not remunerated properly, it is only human nature to feel aggrieved and to seek ‘justice’ – if wealth was properly distributed in the first place, there would be no need for redistribution! We all know (those of us who have not stuck our heads in the sand) just how much money is going to the tiny 0.0000008% of the world population. This has just become the latest record figure; we are seeing records on the wealth imbalance broken year after year, and it just has to stop; latest figures here.

However, some politicians have a twisted agenda to present a different view of politics; chiefly that either…

a): right-wing thinking is about ‘less government’ and more for the individual’s liberty, while left-wing thinking is about government control and the diminishing of the individual, and the promotion of the importance of ‘the state’ – this does sum up non-democratic Marxism/ Communism since it views democracy as a corruptible thing and that a totalitarian regime is required to ‘protect’ the state from being undermined. or…

b): both left-wing and right-wing thinking are the same thing, and removing government regulations is about getting beyond this to a pure utopia where everyone is free to pursue their own dreams/ ambitions/ aspirations.

This leads to some crazy ideas, like how Fascism is left-wing, since Fascists seek to appropriate government (unelected if possible) to strengthen their control of the cash flow! Who else would propose this but right-wing nationalists who want to distance themselves from what we saw develop in Europe between the wars, but right-wing beliefs, if taken to an extreme, end up in this place of utter belief in the ‘rightness’ of your own national cause and the place of your established elite, against the ‘wrongness’ of anything else that challenges that, from within or without. Let us note that the political prisoners who were in the German concentration camps alongside the Jews were the Communists, not the Capitalists! Socialism is, I will admit, much more international than nationalistic, since we believe in the value of all workers. Hence why I detest the name ‘National Socialism’ (Nazism) – it’s an oxymoron.

These views are gaining ground in the USA, where there is a vast subculture of mistrust of any government; it is a nation borne from revolution against a government, so that’s no surprise, but I wonder how a nation that managed to set up its own government democratically could end up being consistently mistrustful of what is constituted from their own candidates and votes – a huge debate, especially since we are heading that way too in the UK.

I only recently discovered that there’s a saying in France: “only right-wingers believe that right-wing and left-wing are the same!” Such misrepresentations are done by those in power to garner votes and to make you think that they believe in the same values you do, and this is the hub of my argument here…

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Party positions are fairly fluid depending on the membership but this is a basic diagram of where they are ‘meant’ to be! I would place the newer ‘neoconservatives’ (or Thatcherites) about an inch to the right of UKIP.

When we look at the ‘credit crunch’ of 2008, we all come to one conclusion: it was the bankers! This happened before (as I’ve blogged on), in the Wall Street Crash of 1929, which led to the first Great Depression in the 30s. Our grandparents mistrusted banks then, so why do we still trust them now? “How was this allowed to happen?” is an oft-heard question. The answer is simple: our governments deregulated the financial market and opened up the possibility for greed to go off the scale for an elite few, who naturally succumbed to the temptation. As a Christian, I do believe in the fallen nature of man, so I am never surprised when such things overtake educated and smart people and cause them to lose all sense of proportion: for them, making another two billion just would not do when there was a possibility to make three!

The credit crunch happened because of greed, and it was allowed to happen. We all know that government regulation was not to blame; it was the lack of regulation, and this is what the ‘free market’ exponents wanted all along – they tell you it’s about ‘individual freedom’ but it actually means that power shifts from government to individuals, and since money is power, it is the wealthy who gain! [If you want to know about where free market ideology came from, I blogged on this three years ago here].

The bottom line

This is what socialist philosophy is about: we recognise that power is vested in too few individuals in ‘natural’ society and believe that to achieve a more egalitarian (equality-based) society, our governments, elected from us, by us, and for us [nod of deference to you, Mr. Lincoln] must enact laws that grant more power to the disempowered, the poorer parts of society, who have little capital but provide their labour i.e. the democratic majority of us, that allow us all to share in the fruits of production. Such regulations redress the imbalance and provide a better, happier and more stable society that is less likely to rise up in revolution and behead the ruling class! Free market proponents can deny the existence of society all they want, until it does come back to bite them at the end of a gun barrel. Since I am a democratic socialist, this is the last thing I want! The ‘natural’ society that the free marketeers wish for is natural, but that means it’s either Darwinian (if that’s your scientific basis) or sinful (if you believe in a religious view of a righteous god). I know that I am a tiny krill in the vast ocean of the world’s finances, so I’d rather not be eaten by the whales, thank you very much! I want my elected government to be there to fight for me and everyone else like me, in the same great tradition of Magna Carta.

Our steel market is facing layoffs and shutting down of production. The excuse is made that “this is the will of the market” as if ‘the market’ was some all-powerful deity who ruled according to their own thinking! Somehow China is able to produce steel at a much lower price and are beating the rest of the market hands down; c’est la vie! However, China does not believe in a free market, and have heavily subsidised their steel production with government funds! Xi Jinping is making an economic attack on our industry, and the free marketeers in charge here are agreeing to what is happening due to their blind devotion to their false god: to protect our industries would be a capitulation to that horrible policy that is derogatorily called ‘protectionism’ – nice to know that should I wish to act in the interests of those close to me I could be labeled a ‘protectionist’! In order for ‘the free market’ to work for everyone (if that was ever possible), it would require, before anything else, every country in the world to subscribe to it! And they say that we are the dreamers!?winston-churchill-democrasy

So often I hear people say “socialism failed! Look at the collapse of the Soviet Union!” Yes, that particular form of socialism (non-democratic Communism!) did fail, and there is no system of government that is perfect; each brings its own problems along with its solutions. Surely the last 30+ years of free-market experimentation has also shown it has failed!

Socialism believes in society, and that the answer to one of the oldest questions is “yes, Cain, you are your brother’s keeper!” Hence why so many neoconservatives wish to make us believe that ‘society’ is only a myth. Sorry, but I have eyes in my head, and behind them a reasonably functioning brain! We have had the pursuit of the freeing of the market from regulation for a few decades now, and it has been so insidious in pervading political thinking that former socialists were caught up in the new religion. It was making the working majority impoverished anyway with the upward flow of money, the stagnation of wages and the ridiculous hikes in property prices, but 2008 just killed off any last vestige of hope that it might ‘turn out better in the end’ – yet what do we have now? George Osborne telling us that we need to undergo a bit more austerity, a bit more hardship and pain, just so we can get through this to the land of milk and honey! I don’t see you suffering that much, George!

This is not homeopathy! We don’t cure the ills with even more ills! We4b00b-da turn around and go back to the crossroads where we took that wrong turn and we choose a different path. If at all possible, we find that path we were already on, which created the greatest rise in living standards ever and fantastic achievements like the NHS! We do not allow them to dismantle the remnants so there will be no going back, for that is their wish and desire, believe me!

Anyone who reads my blogs will know that I believe passionately in separation of church and state, but I do accept that Christian standards have to be applied to my political aspirations and must influence what I seek from my government. [I understand that varying political views can exist within the body of Christ, but each believer must be informed and must be able to square their stance with scripture]. Reading my Bible, I see clearly just how much greed is condemned, and believe that it should be curbed; I hear my Lord give one of his clearest commands ever when he said “pay your taxes!” and I know that:

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.

James 1:27

Orphans and widows were the lowest financially in the ancient world, so for me, welfare being provided by the state is a fulfilment of a guiding biblical principle!

I choose to vote for those who champion the lower parts of society, not the higher! I know that now includes practically everybody who might read this, since the current incumbents in Westminster (and Capitol Hill) only serve the top 0.1%!2016-01-12 02.01.07

Too many believe the right-wing media and their attempts to redefine my political beliefs into falsehoods, like the idea that socialism is about rewarding laziness and penalising hard work: nothing could be further from the truth!

Capitalism vests value in capital and property, and thus rewards those who have it. Socialism vests value in labour, and rewards those who produce it!

Grace be with you.

 

Child beheaded for striking parents!

isis-flagA few weeks ago, I did something I truly wish I had not! I warn you now not to do the same. I was merrily googling about something political, for information; in my search bar I had included the word ‘atrocities’ and then, for some reason, within the search results, I clicked on ‘images’! Despite not typing in anything to do with ISIS, the first images that appeared were ISIS atrocities! I looked, for too long, far too long, I was mesmerised. It was almost certainly less than a minute, but that was all it took to burn those pictures into my brain. I have some failing memory in my advancing years; how I wish it would fail me now – the pictures will haunt my nightmares until I leave this Earth.

In no shape or form will I ever join in the politically-motivated rhetoric of branding all Muslims as barbaric or savage, but those people in ISIS must be the most debased and disgusting humans on this planet right now. I cannot think of anyone worse. In the past we’ve had the Nazis (white Europeans) and the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia (Asian atheists), amongst other savages, so ISIS are not wholly unique, but they are making the effort to top the list with fervour. The most recent report that I read was how they executed 19 young women who refused to take part in ‘sexual jihad’ – I’ll spare you the details.

However, my headline ‘shocker’ has nothing to do with ISIS or Muslims whatsoever. It would have been a tabloid headline in 16th century Geneva (had they been reading tabloids then)! Church history scholars will realise that this is referring to post-reformation Geneva, a city state founded on and run by the principles of Calvin’s ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’ and his interpretation of the Bible. One reliable source records that it was a teenage boy, called Phillipe DeVille and that he was tied to a stake and then beheaded. Another source claims it was a girl, but there is no argument against the fact that it did happen, as punishment for lashing out at both parents. Many other unruly children were subjected to harsh punishments, and many adults were beheaded or burnt at the stake for disagreeing with Calvin, or the council who made his ‘Institutes’ as authoritative as the holy scriptures. You can read of the executions of Servetus and Gruet elsewhere, if you can stomach it, and the various debates over how much Calvin himself was involved. His followers tend to try their best to defend him and downplay that he really wanted these men killed, or wished for a swift execution, etc., and that is understandable if you’ve based a whole load of your theology on his writings. The evidence against him, however, is pretty damning. We can say things like “it was a different time he lived in” and I’m glad if we can agree that in the 21st century Western world, we have moved on from ‘that time’.

Calvinism is not the debate I’m entering into, though. I can label myself a Calvinist for the side I drop onto from the fence on the ever-present debate on election and the visibility of the church, but I’m not an ardent disciple of his theology at all. No, the real problem for me is that this utterly heinous act comes directly from our Bible, from the Mosaic Law in the Old Testament:

Anyone who attacks their father or mother is to be put to death. (Ex. 21:15)

If someone has a stubborn and rebellious son who does not obey his father and mother and will not listen to them when they discipline him, his father and mother shall take hold of him and bring him to the elders at the gate of his town. They shall say to the elders, “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a glutton and a drunkard.” Then all the men of his town are to stone him to death. You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid. (Deut. 21: 18-21)

Had it been a Calvinistic interpretation of some obscure verse, I could dismiss it, but it’s not. It’s as clear as it reads in my own Bible that I cherish. And here lies the problem with those who wish to ‘return to the Law’: The real problem.

The ‘divisions’ of the Lawmosaiclaw

Many who call for a return to observance of the Mosaic Law understand that there are many things in it that seem petty and unnecessary for us e.g. men should not shave the sides of their head, and clothing should not be made with mixed fabrics. Some are outdated; a man who left the Amish community after his personal conversion from their heavily-ritualised living had an infestation of woodworm in his barn. He read the appropriate law and burned the barn down! They didn’t have effective pesticides in those days but we do now.

So in order to be able to dismiss some laws and not others, some try to distinguish them into categories, like ‘moral’, ‘ritual/ ceremonial’, ‘dietary’, ‘clean and unclean things’, etc., but the problem here is that such a division was never in the original. There’s no ‘book of ceremonial law’ or ‘chapter x: the moral code’ there. They’re written in a continuous though quite diverse manner. All the laws as written were to be adhered to uniformly and consistently. As with all legal codes, moral dilemmas ensued with interpretations of just how they could be applied, like just how far could one walk on the Sabbath, for instance, and so interpretations were added. I have often heard things like “when Jesus criticised the Pharisees, he wasn’t attacking the law, but all the ‘ordinances’ that were added on to the law, ‘by man'”

However, even if we were to remove all such additional commentary, and then divide up the Mosaic Law and assign them all into various categories, and then say that we should only keep the ‘moral’ ones, we are still left with the ones quoted above; they’re clearly to do with morals – they even tie into the fifth commandment, ‘honour your father and your mother’ (though that was addressed to adults who were not to forget their elderly parents). Note that it even extends beyond physical violence – Ex. 21:17 states: Anyone who curses their father or mother is to be put to death. [emphasis added]

If you truly advocate a return to law-keeping, then note that Paul made it clear that we cannot keep just part – we must adhere to it all, and to not do so would invoke a curse! He even talks of the law as slavery!!

For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse, as it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who does not continue to do everything written in the Book of the Law.’ (Gal.3:10)

And so we find ourselves faced with a command, a moral one, that must be adhered to. Are we to take our unruly and rebellious teenage children to the legal authorities for execution? As I recall the images I saw on my google page, some of them of children… I must ask: would there be much difference between that and what we must set up were we to go back to the days those laws were written for? If you can comprehend what this means, you have begun to be mindful of the difficulty we face. There are some theologians who believe the Mosaic Law to have been written by man – it is truly a very difficult thing for fundamentalists to argue against!

Paul & the Galatians

You see, there’s a lot of talk about the gospel offending people these days, and it’s worn as a badge of honour by many: “I don’t care if my faith or my Bible offends people, I’m saying it anyway!” – and they refer to Paul talking about the offence and the ‘scandal’ of the gospel. Today it’s usually to do with a ‘laxness’ in morals in modern society, as well as in some churches, or a disregard for ‘the law’, or not calling sin, sin. However, this was not what Paul meant by ‘the offence of the cross’!

It’s true! The gospel of Jesus is offensive! Paul states that clearly: Brothers and sisters, if I am still preaching circumcision, why am I still being persecuted? In that case the offence of the cross has been abolished. (Gal.5:11). But… Paul is not describing an offence against a ‘lawless faith’ that disregards sin and its consequences and punishments. No! He’s preaching to the Galatians against ‘the law’! And he is talking about the Law as written in the scriptures, not any ‘man-made additional ordinances’. Why is this man, who was a fervent Pharisee, zealous for the Hebrew scriptures and a persecutor of the traitorous Christians, now saying that he’s not for going back to the Law!? He is addressing the church in Galatia, which has been infiltrated by legalists who are trying to get them to be circumcised, and Paul, a circumcised Jew himself, screams “NO!” at them.

Let me explain: Some had entered the Galatian church after Paul, and taught that believers need to be circumcised according to the law, and then told the Galatians that Paul preached the same message. Paul denied this, and in his letter he reels on these usurpers in one of his most venomous writings. What Paul is talking about to the Galatians in the passage quoted above is the offence that the gospel causes to these people; the ones who wish to take the Galatian church back to following the Mosaic law. The case where ‘the offence of the cross [would have] been abolished’ in chapter 5 is made if what the Galatians have been told (that Paul preaches circumcision too) were true. Were Paul to be preaching this, then there would be no offence caused to these pious, religious, law-keeping perverters of the gospel. Hold on! He’s calling law-keepers ‘perverters’ of the gospel? Yes! He addresses this at the outset of the letter: Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. (1:7)

Christ and Our Cross

Christ and Our Cross

The offence of the cross is what so many find hard to grasp; which is that grace is extended to whomever would believe and follow Christ, and is not dependent on works at allI exhort you to read the whole epistle, maybe even in The Message paraphrase, since it captures Paul’s anger that many other translations seem to dilute. Be aware, as you read it, that it most certainly is not a “hello, chums! Hope you’re all feeling well today!” sort of letter; far from it!

 Law v. Grace

It was this ‘offence’ of the gospel of grace that caused Mohammad to rebel against it since he could not accept the very idea of vicarious atonement. Vicarious what? It means that someone took the place of punishment for the sins of another; they paid the cost, and took the consequences. This is the very lynchpin of the gospel of Jesus Christ. He paid it all, for the sins of anyone who would accept that vicarious atonement and not rebel against it; it is the will of God that we should partake of it, since God knows our weakness and how we cannot achieve such atonement for ourselves. Paul labours on this throughout Galatians, and touches on it in other epistles, notably Romans.

Now a perfectly natural reaction to this news is to take an attitude of “so all my sins are forgiven!? That means it doesn’t matter if I sin or not!” Some even went to the extreme of saying that we should sin all the more, since this glorifies God by displaying the majesty of his grace that forgives those sins that we commit. As ‘The Teacher’ wrote in Ecclesiastes, there is nothing new under the sun (Ecc. 1:9), and this attitude which we see in some modern churches that ‘sin is no longer an issue’ is as old as the gospel itself. It pervaded Gnostic thought and philosophy, and Paul dismissed it directly to the Roman believers:

What shall we say, then? Shall we go on sinning, so that grace may increase? By no means! We are those who have died to sin; how can we live in it any longer? (Rom. 6:1,2)

[The ‘Last Days’ began with Jesus’ ascension to heaven!]

Paul’s theology outlines beautifully how we have died with Christ on the cross, to sin, and arose again to salvation and new life, and anyone who has died has been set free from sin. (Rom. 6:6-8). Unfortunately, though, many who have been appalled at those who grant others a ‘license to sin’ (I call them ‘licensers’ in my book) then react in a human way and begin to reject the doctrine of grace, preferring a more ‘righteous’ way of living, and they gravitate back to a code that they can refer to for precise guidance. My problem right away is that we are called to be righteous, not self-righteous, and in this I see a problem arise, which leads to conceitedness, with fellow brothers and sisters thinking that they are ‘better’ than other believers, when in fact, the beginning of the following after Jesus is humility; we are to deny ourselves (Matt. 16:24). Jesus lays out just how much sin resides in us in his Sermon on the Mount, and Paul declares that he himself is the chief of sinners. (1Tim. 1:15) – he recognised that once he was aware of his own fallen heart, there could be nobody else he could judge as beneath him.

I have never met the man I could despair of after discerning what lies in me apart from the grace of God. – Oswald Chambers

I have come to believe that this was the very intention of Jesus in pointing to our hearts and saying “there lies sin!” Why else would he convict us so badly, rebuke us so sharply? Only to teach us that each of us has been forgiven, completely, totally, so we cannot wish to judge others or belittle them. We will then react to grace in a positive way, like the single leper from the ten healed, who returned to Jesus to give thanks.

How then do we deal with the licensers? Why can they not feel what that one leper felt and desire to serve Christ in a totally non-selfish way? (And why is it that so many who preach about personal wealth and health by faith then fall into this trap?). More importantly, why do we have this struggle between law and grace?

Cheap grace

dbonhoefferDietrich Bonhoeffer (1906 – 1945) was a modern martyr for the gospel, executed by Hitler’s regime for maintaining his stance against the evil he saw around him. His most famous work was ‘The Cost of Discipleship’ and his death was a testimony to what he wrote. He saw much of this ‘license to sin’ in his day too (just as it was in the first century, and still is in the 21st century), and he coined the term ‘cheap grace’ to describe what he perceived these people were doing with the gospel of true grace (or ‘costly grace’). For Bonhoeffer, cheap grace was a perversion of the gospel where grace was used as an excuse for sin, since it was easier to view it that way and live a life without discipleship, without ‘following after’ Christ, which would cost much to any disciple, maybe even to the point of their own life; we are to take up our cross, and we would do well to grasp just what that phrase means. Bonhoeffer certainly did!

To get a better understanding of this, let us first go back to Martin Luther, since his reformation has been blamed for offering Christians licence by taking them away from the long-standing doctrines and sacraments of the established church. On the contrary, what was probably the spark that lit his fire of passion to call for a serious debate within the church was an event one Saturday evening; on his way home, he found a parishioner lying drunk in the gutter. Luther picked him up and brushed him down, and rebuked him for his drunkenness, telling him that he must go home and sober up for the morning to be able to get to the confessional for his sin. The man dismissed his priest, drawing out of his pocket a bill signed by the Pope which he had paid a good sum for, saying “see! The Pope himself has absolved all my sins! I can do as I like!” Licensing existed in the Roman Catholic church too! Luther was appalled at such an attitude: he was a true disciple – he was not intending to enter the priesthood, but did so after promising God he would if hemartin_luther survived a severe lightning storm in the Alps. His word was his bond. As he read his Bible more, and sought the Lord, his grasp of the doctrine of grace did not diminish his desire for ongoing costly discipleship. No, it was a comfort to him, that his place in heaven was assured, that he need not strive any more, but in the heart of a true disciple, it offered strength to the resolve to follow, not the excuse to carry on with life just as before and forget about following. Jesus always laid out difficult conditions for following him. Some of these are too difficult for some!

Bonhoeffer built on this foundation, and wrote some excellent stuff on the differences between cheap grace and costly grace. I prefer to call costly grace ‘true grace’ since this is what flowed from Jesus’ blood on the cross in the first place, and was what Paul and all the apostles, and good church founders throughout Christian history have known. But Bonhoeffer explains why he calls it ‘costly grace’:

It is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.

It is costly because it costs a man his life, and it is grace because it gives a man the only true life.

It is costly because it condemns the sinner, and grace because it justifies the sinner.

Above all, it is costly because it cost God the life of his Son.

The answer and the antidote to cheap grace is not to return to the law. Paul lays out just how twisted a logic that is, since we are leaving our means of salvation, by grace, through faith, and going back to that which never could save. Abraham was justified by faith, not law, long before the law came! No, the answer to cheap grace is not a return to the Law, but to preach, and live by, true costly grace.

I cringe when I see the likes of Joel Osteen look at the camera and say to viewers to recite his own version of the ‘sinner’s prayer’ (which is not in the Bible, by the way) and then say “congratulations, you are now in the family of God!”. Yes, my own salvation started at a moment with a prayer like that, but with little to no teaching on those TV screens about commitment and discipleship, is that single prayer not simply sewn on stony ground? When I first decided to follow Jesus, I knew from the outset that following him as a disciple was not just praying the prayer, or even believing the belief: it was living the life!

There is a difference between knowing the path and walking the path. 

– Morpheus

The Law fulfilled

And now comes the objection which I am bound to hear. It is the clever objection that is always proposed, and it is taken from the very words of our Lord in his Sermon on the Mount, right before he talks about how much sin is within our hearts:

‘Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfil them. For truly I tell you, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished. Therefore anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever practises and teaches these commands will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. For I tell you that unless your righteousness surpasses that of the Pharisees and the teachers of the law, you will certainly not enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20)

Putting this up against what we have discussed about grace just sounds like a contradiction, but it is due to misunderstanding on three points:

1. Fulfilment

No, the Law has not been abolished, say the legalists. Correct. However, Christ had not come to abolish them but to fulfil them! They miss that tiny little word but and then the word fulfil gets overlooked. I don’t even need to get into the nitty-gritty of the original words since the English suffices (save to point out that the Greek for fulfil, plero-o, is the root of our word completion). Once Jesus finished his work on Calvary, it was done, all the requirements of the Law were completed and fulfilled in a most perfect way that all of mankind striving, for all of eternity, could never accomplish. For me, any return to what went before, dishonours and insults my Lord’s finished work – it says that it wasn’t enough, and tries to circumvent that which is offensive about the gospel. It’s legalists who cannot shoulder that offence, and they may as well convert to Islam, since it’s much the same as what they advocate, in my humble opinion!

2. The Law AND the Prophets1375452838_prophet

In many of Jesus’ references to the Law, it is termed ‘the Law and the Prophets’ – this is one division that did exist in the Hebrew scriptures, though again done so by men; they had the Law, the Prophets, and the Writings (the last one usually consists of Job, the Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes and the Song of Songs, but the categorisation has changed at times). However, Jesus, when talking about what he has come to fulfil, includes the prophets. To analyse the messages of the prophets in a soundbite, it is that they were always standing on the fringe of society calling the people back to God. It usually consisted of “you keep God’s laws as precisely as if you were ‘straining out a gnat‘ yet your hearts are far from him!” Jesus sought to put these together; yes, there is the law, but don’t forsake what my prophets told you, that a heart turned towards me is more important. Through Isaiah, God said how he had tired of all the sacrifices of rams and bulls and lambs. He wanted them to just love and desire him, and Jesus’ call to his disciples hinged on their hearts. Without the prophets’ message, without heart change, law-keeping means nothing to God.

3. Surpassing the Pharisees

Right after this passage, Jesus launched into one of his most difficult passages about how we should live and follow him, how every little thing we do in our innermost thoughts can be sinful against God, and while we may hide it from others, we cannot hide it from the Father; he knows our hearts, every waking thought, and every sleep-filled dream. I analysed it in minute detail in my book; it’s very tricky to heed and live by, but it lays out what Jesus meant: the Pharisees keep the laws, perfectly, precisely, like clockwork, but that is just all show for others to see their righteousness. “I want you to be different,” says our Lord,”so that you can have an inner righteousness that is greater than theirs, and then shines forth from a heart that has changed.”

A final point to make is that the anyone who sets aside one of the least of these commands and teaches others accordingly will be called least in the kingdom of heaven phrase is actually not saying that we must keep it all, every last bit. It means you cannot set aside one of them – just as Paul warned, if you wish to live by the Law, you cannot set even one aside; you must be enslaved again to keep them all (which includes the child-killing). When reading Galatians, I don’t see Paul saying “don’t keep this law” or “you can ignore that one.” No, he simply warns that they come as a package, and that package is fulfilled, and covered by grace, by Jesus’ blood, buried with his baptismal dip into the Jordan river. Trying to keep them is putting the chains back on that were removed when grace was preached to you.

Still not convinced? Still think that you can choose which laws you like and which you don’t? Which means that you’re ‘cherry-picking’ scripture – heaven forbid! Or that maybe stoning children to death for being rebels is a good idea after all!? I’ll let Paul have the final word – read them carefully:

It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.

Mark my words! I, Paul, tell you that if you let yourselves be circumcised, Christ will be of no value to you at all. Again I declare to every man who lets himself be circumcised that he is required to obey the whole law. You who are trying to be justified by the law have been alienated from Christ; you have fallen away from grace. (Gal. 5:1-4)

Alienated from Christ!? Fallen… from grace!? Harsh words indeed!

Grace truly be with you.

[now that I realise this is my longest blog yet, I’m wondering were I not better to make a video where I just read out some ‘zany’ or ‘shocking’ bits of the Law, smile and point at the camera (maybe with an American accent) and say “you sure you wanna go back to the Law? ‘Cos that’s the laaawwww!”] Not me, though. 😦

Why I hate testimonies!

This will conclude with what I have come to believe is one of the greatest faults within evangelical churches, which serves to actually undermine discipleship with Christ! In a recent discussion around two songs, both entitled ‘Take me to church’ I stated that just as I, as an imperfect individual, need to accept fair criticism, so also an imperfect church needs to do the same.

I am fairly certain I have mentioned this before in bits and pieces across all my previous blogs, but I’m just wanting to lay down something a bit more concrete. Yes, I do hate testimonies!

34 years listening to them and seldom not just wanting to fall asleep! Also getting to the point of missing our New Year’s ‘watchnight’ services because they’d be a total of four hours (with a welcome tea break, mind you) mainly full of… testimonies!

Not that I doubt the individual testimonies of my brothers and sisters! Nor that their own stories are unique and do testify to the saving grace of God. I just got tired of the same old, same old… [for those who maybe do not practice this cultural phenomenon, you are asked to speak before the church and relate what God has done in your life, how he saved you from the consequences of your sins, changed your life, provided for you, answered prayers].

Yes, they certainly can be valuable. I was even asked myself to testify for a Father’s Day service, and asked specifically to tell of how I was miraculously healed from a brain haemorrhage and stroke, and it is a story of how I faced death, spoke with God, received assurance that I’d not die in intensive care, and yes, I would see my grandchildren (first granddaughter born only two years later!).

So why and how do I find myself just hating them and dreading the next round of them? As with many religious things we participate in, they’re more cultural than scriptural  – just for example, where do our two services on Sunday come from? Testimonies that I hear tend to take on a pattern, human nature being what it is, and follow an unspoken, unwritten code and definition that people tend to fall into in order to fulfil the ‘criteria’ that make it what it is. I often hear preambles like “I’m honoured to be able to stand here and testify for my Lord Jesus” or clichés like “he died in my room instead” (which I somehow always hear as ‘room and staid’ since it might almost make as much sense to an unchurched person as the ‘proper’ one that rolls off our tongues!), or worse: “he’s now my own and personal saviour” since both ‘own’ and ‘personal’ mean the same thing, and create a redundancy, and I believe it to be a corruption of ‘my Lord and personal saviour’ and leaving out ‘Lord’ (whether intentionally or not) leads to a belief I shall come to later.

No, I end up purely anticipating a formula that sounds roughly like this:

“I’m honoured… [see above]. I was a terrible sinner. I was

a) raised in a Christian home,

or b) not raised in a Christian home but was made to go to Sunday school,

but I turned my back on all that when I grew up.

I lived a life of [insert various vices here. Common ones like smoking, drinking and going to pubs are fair enough, but feel free to add in ‘greater’ sins if applicable e.g. cheating on (or better, beating) your spouse].

I carried on in this miserable life until one day, I gave in to this guy at work/ friend from schooldays/ uncle or aunt who had been asking me incessantly about going to church with them, and I attended the gospel service. I was so moved by the message and felt God calling me. I raised my hand, said the sinner’s prayer, and now I no longer [smoke, drink, go to pubs… as applicable from above] and I’ve never looked back, even though that was x years ago. [END].”

[N.B. Add in a few clichés as noted above when describing your moment of salvation]

Many seem to almost revel in just how bad a person the testifier was before their encounter with Jesus, to the point that it can sound like a glorification of sin to me! I thought this was peculiar maybe to just my Northern Ireland culture but a bestselling book years ago was ‘Hell’s Angel’ by Brian Greenaway, an English believer who went around testifying to the violent life he lived in a chapter of bikers before becoming a Christian. He related in an interview how an old lady came to him after a service and said “oh I wish I had a testimony like yours!” Greenaway said that he felt like punching her in the face (yes, God’s grace takes time to work on some of us!). He could not believe that she’d been listening to how awful things were for him and still wish that she had experienced a similar life. There it was, a clear desire to have something terrible from which to have been ‘saved’ in order to lend kudos to one’s testimony! Heaven forbid we should have a boring one!

Yet no testimony should be boring! If we only were to recount to ourselves all the great things in which we have seen God’s work and hand in our lives, and what we have learnt along the way, it should never be mundane to listen to; that is, if we have a walk to recount…

1. I AM a sinner!

First point I wish to make about these ‘off the shelf’ testimonies is that they seem to talk about being a sinner until that day we changed and never went back to the ‘life of sin’ yet nowhere do I read of us achieving perfection this side of heaven! The righteousness we have is imputed to us through Christ’s perfection, once we accept him. We are just deemed righteous by God through Jesus. If you’re not sure what this means, look up those two words in a dictionary. It should be clear. We are all sinners and continue to be so. I have thought of my life as being suddenly changed in a flash, yes, that moment I accepted Christ as Lord and saviour, but I saw no instant change in myself. That has taken time and is still ongoing, every day, every year. Like that day 27 years ago that I made vows to my wife in love, and I became a married man, my life changed, but it has been a journey of ups and downs, good and bad, ‘for better, for worse’ with Karen that is still ongoing, and my marriage was not set down in concrete form on that wedding day. I’ve made mistakes in how I’ve treated my wife, as has she with me, as has any married person. The same applies to the Christian life, and by focussing purely on that one day and stopping your testimony there, you imply that you have been a good saint ever since. This was not my experience; I was a well-behaved boy of 14. I’d done no more than a few detentions for not doing homework, looking curiously at certain magazines we found on a disused railway, and trying to light cigarettes with my best friend without puffing on them, and thinking it was just our luck to purchase a pack that were all duds! I can safely say I have been more of a sinner since my conversion than before. Hence why I can also not sing certain songs that talk of “sinking deep in sin, sinking to rise no more” or that “my life was full of sin and confusion” – that certainly is the experience of some, but not all of us, and so these ‘expected’ testimonies become the preserve of those who can declare such a life, leaving others feeling somehow short-changed. No, I am thankful that I have no real bad past to haunt my dreams and disturb my sleep. I got enough of that conviction when I experienced Holy Spirit revival (blogged here) – again; after my conversion!

2. We cannot keep ourselves

I saw a graph for usage of gym membership over the months of a year, put up on Facebook for a laugh. Of course, January has the highest peak, decreasing over the year to maybe a short peak before the summer months (must get back into that swimsuit!). We all know why. How many New Year’s resolutions last into February, really? I decided some time ago to stop making resolutions just once in the year because our nature will always disappoint us, and not just at the expected time (we do expect to break those resolutions sometime, don’t we?). I make resolutions when needed and if I don’t keep them, I just try again. Finding that it has been a mistake to put trust in our own nature to keep to it just makes the devil on our shoulder laugh while the angel on the other shoulder commits hara-kiri in dishonour! So it is with many new converts. Too many, I fear. When doing door-to-door work in my native East Belfast, which has a church on every street corner, I lost count of the people I encountered who said “oh, I tried all that church stuff and became a Christian x years ago, but I couldn’t maintain it.” This probably outnumbered those who said their reason for turning their back on churches was ‘other Christians’ which were numerous too! It is a wonderfully simple concept that I grasped early on; that it was nothing to do with my efforts but all rested on the finished work of Calvary and it was Jesus that kept me forever, forgiving me of all my sin repented of (in fact, I memorised 1John 1:9 before my salvation!), and not up to me to keep myself; I cannot do it, but he can, praise his name. This misconception has led to many making that ‘resolution’ to follow Jesus, only to fall at some natural hurdle, and say to themselves “well, I tried it, but I couldn’t do it. It’s not for me!” In other words, it’s for ‘religious’ people, for those of us who have the resolve to live like monks in a perpetual state of piety and self-denial. This is where I take a second issue with these ‘standard’ testimonies, since they only add to this confusion and misunderstanding, by inadvertently implying that once the sinner’s prayer is said, everything is rosy and we ‘live happily ever after’ – saying “I’ve never looked back” says that to me, that the testifier has had no problems following Jesus, and so a new convert who encounters issues in their walk is likely to feel themselves inferior and unworthy of Jesus; yet we are all unworthy (Romans 5:8). Were a testifier to say that they have encountered problems and doubts in their life since following Christ, and discuss it openly, my ears would most certainly prick up! But, no, testimonies are meant to be just all positive and gushing!

3. The story isn’t over!

A major problem that is present in most Protestant churches derives from where they came from. The first protestants opposed some of the doctrines of the Roman Catholic church, and the general feeling, borne from Luther’s assertion that “the just shall live by faith alone” (Galatians 3:10-12) was that Rome had imposed an ongoing dependence upon the priesthood and their administration of sacraments deemed vital to a believer’s life. This was rejected since we are believed now to all be saints, as Paul addresses all believers in his letters, and each of us capable of coming to Christ on our own, serving him in our individual lives without meeting the requirements of any church or denomination (or church leader). I can safely say that you’d be hard pressed to find a protestant church that would deny this: whatever rituals or ordinances they may require of a member would be qualified as not vital to one’s salvation or relationship with Christ. However, from this stance comes a mindset that tends to reject any attempt to state how we need to serve Christ by good works (which our salvation is not dependent upon):

For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast. (Eph. 2:8,9)

even though in the following verse God fully expects them from us:

For we are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Eph. 2:10)

Here is the problem I alluded to at the outset:

While salvation is dependent solely on Christ’s work on the cross, this does not mean that we have absolutely nothing to do for him! We can find the extreme doctrine that we need not worry about any acts of service after that initial decision, not even praying or reading our Bible (yes!). Thankfully, most evangelical churches will reject this nonsense, and preach that we must repent from sin and live righteously, but the call to ‘live right’ simply falls into trap #2 mentioned above. It implies, yet again, that one must make an effort to avoid certain things or behaviours, or the company of ‘sinners’ (even though Jesus sought to sit, eat and drink with them!).

No, new converts must be taught that our decision to follow Jesus is exactly that: we start following him! It is that simple, even though it brings many problems and dilemmas into our lives. Note that ‘the sinner’s prayer’ is found nowhere in scripture! Just saying it does not make you a follower of Jesus; your salvation may hinge upon the decision, but your earthly life does not just come to an end as you take up your selected pew and sit out the rest, waiting for death or his return! To me, many believers look like they’ve done just this, even with their personal pew cushions to comfort their long-suffering butt! Your salvation decision is a glorious moment, never to be repeated, but it is only the start of a long and wondrous journey, with just so much to learn. And like that one leper out of the ten, should we not go back to our saviour, fall at his feet and offer thanks, and seek to know just how we can thank and serve him? We need to make him our ‘Lord and personal saviour’! Did Paul not admonish us to “work out our salvation with fear and trembling”? (Phil. 2:12)

Yes, I approach my life with such fear and trembling, since many times I have found myself challenged and made to feel uncomfortable. Remember when your parents scolded you for bad behaviour or a wrong attitude? A good child will feel remorse, and want to do better, and please their parents. So are we with God: let us take up our cross as we follow in the footsteps of Jesus, listening intently to his words and trying to emulate him. You have problems with sin in your life? Welcome to the club! If you want a good lament on that read about Paul’s ongoing struggle in Romans 7. In that brain wrestle, he goes through the tensions that exist in churches and individual believers… surely we cannot just live an entire life of reliance upon Christ based on one event outside of our control? We must have something to live by, and this is what the law was given for, so… we must turn back to it for instruction on ‘right living’… but, that in itself held us captive to nothing but the knowledge of sin, and I find myself at war within my own spirit over this… how do I get out of it? He reaches his answer in the following chapter: we who have his Spirit within us, who experienced the change of heart at that moment and didn’t just mouth some words in a ritual, have this ‘law of Christ’ working in us, and indeed, his own work imputed to us, not just his achievement for our salvation, means that our striving is not required (not by works) but our acceptance of his perfection grants us victory:

Christ is the culmination of the law so that there may be righteousness for everyone who believes. (Rom. 10:4)

We can reject the idea that we need to religiously strive after our salvation and gain it on merit. Surely we can also refute the notion that it’s all about just one raising of a hand? Here’s my favourite word again: balance. The truth of our walk, The Way, which is actually him (John 14:6), is that beautiful middle choice of simple surrender to his will. My journey started not with a raising of a hand or a formulaic prayer, but it was a prayer, to a God I was not certain was there. His reply has never left my ears. As I complete this, I’m listening to ‘What a Friend I’ve Found’ by Delirious: “Jesus… friend forever.”

Grace be with you.

[As an aside, when I think about all the testimonies I’ve heard, another implication is that the only way to ‘win’ someone to Christ is to invite them to a gospel service. I cannot recall even one that said they found Jesus outside of this formula, yet there I was, praying for God to accept me, long before I set foot across a church door! Was I, like Paul, just one ‘abnormally born’ (1 Cor. 15:8)? Can we not witness in all areas of our life? The three people I have led to Jesus in my own life were not in such a gospel service.]

 

An unmentioned sin

There are a fair few things we count as sinful. Some are scriptural, but some are borne just from the religiosity of a strict moral background and can be manifold. For instance, when I was a child my best friend came from a strict Baptist family. I got some playing cards to have a game of trump or ‘jacks change it’ and he expressed horror (with an intake of breath): “those are devil cards!!” He even assured me that they should be thrown on the fire, where they would ‘burn and go down to the devil’!

This may be an extreme example (and I can hear many Baptists protest that is is not standard doctrine), but when I became a Christian, one of the things I sought from God’s word was instruction on what exactly it might be that would offend my Lord in my life; how could I know if I was or wasn’t being obedient to his will? I think that’s only right and spiritually healthy. I read his word and if I find something that challenges me to ponder on my actions or attitudes, I prayerfully seek for wisdom and strength to change, and learn about how to maintain that change in my spirit. Should not all Christians do the same? As a new convert, I believed this would be the case for all believers. However, there is a lot of belief that comes from upbringing and tradition in lieu of biblical teaching. We even coin a term for it: ‘churchianity’, though this is usually reserved for other churches, not our own! The basis for the Great Reformation of the 16th century was an address to ‘the church’ that many practices and doctrines were not scriptural.

Unfortunately, as time has marched on, many more things have crept into Christianity from unscriptural sources; but of course, modern evangelicals say this refers to the older ‘denominations’, not the true evangelical churches! Are we exempt, those of us who can cast aspersions on the traditions of those ‘established’ churches that are now long in the tooth? Is it not possible for us to create our own patterns of thought and doctrine and be unaware of where they originated? We may be unable to view such things from the outside.

The new doctrine of prosperity is an ideal candidate for investigation. Why does it not seem to be something written about or taught in the past? Its very newness suggests it has not come from our 2000+ year old scriptures. For me, the answer is fairly simple: the pursuit of wealth is a sin! We can go right back to the 10 commandments to find the tenth one; “You shall not covet your neighbour’s house. You shall not covet your neighbour’s wife, or his male or female servant, his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbour.” (Ex.20:17) Now right away, those who preach the prosperity doctrine will point out that it is a prohibition on desiring the possessions of others, and maintain there is no sin in desiring those things that are duly and rightfully our own. The Hebrew word for covet is hamad. It means ‘to desire’ or ‘to take delight in’ and can be used both positively and negatively e.g. in Song of Songs, the woman takes ‘delight’ in sitting with her beloved; a very different meaning from the sense of ‘covet’. Therefore there has to be a degree of positivity/negativity in any such ‘desire’, and we must ask the question of ourselves which desire is good or bad, beneficial or sinful, or how much desire we may be allowed to have for things i.e. at what point does a desire go from good to bad? We could proffer a scale like from a simple wish for something better, like enough money to take your family on a nice holiday (which very few could decry), to a desire to own a private yacht and sail around the Mediterranean. Again, those who preach that God wishes for us all to prosper and abound in wealth would scratch their heads, wondering how any such desiring (or coveting) could be bad, and say that anything on this scale is fine if God has deemed that you should have it. Therefore they are making the claim that money is good, and loving money or seeking it is a noble pursuit. Unfortunately, I read the opposite throughout scripture – here are just some examples, where I have added my own emphasis since they are parts that are often overlooked in favour of other parts:

Whoever loves money never has enough;
whoever loves wealth is never satisfied with their income. (Eccles. 5:10)

———–

The Pharisees, who loved money, heard all this and were sneering at Jesus. (Luke 16:14)

———–

Now the overseer is to be above reproach, faithful to his wife, temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. (1Tim. 3:2-3)

———–

Keep your lives free from the love of money and be content with what you have… (Hebrews 13:5)

———–

These are the things you are to teach and insist on. If anyone teaches otherwise and does not agree to the sound instruction of our Lord Jesus Christ and to godly teaching, they are conceited and understand nothing. They have an unhealthy interest in controversies and quarrels about words that result in envy, strife, malicious talk, evil suspicions and constant friction between people of corrupt mind, who have been robbed of the truth and who think that godliness is a means to financial gain.

But godliness with contentment is great gain. For we brought nothing into the world, and we can take nothing out of it. But if we have food and clothing, we will be content with that. Those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a trap and into many foolish and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil. Some people, eager for money, have wandered from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs.

But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness. (1Tim. 6:2-11)

———–

And even the words of our own Lord Jesus: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also…. No one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.” (Matt. 6:19-21, 24)

———–

He also went on to state that many who followed him only did so because of the feed that he gave them when he performed the ‘feeding of the five thousand’: Jesus answered, ‘”Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill.” (John 6:26)

———–

But mark this: there will be terrible times in the last days. People will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boastful, proud, abusive, disobedient to their parents, ungrateful, unholy, without love, unforgiving, slanderous, without self-control, brutal, not lovers of the good, treacherous, rash, conceited, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God – having a form of godliness but denying its power. Have nothing to do with such people. (2Tim. 3:1-5) And Paul then goes on to describe ‘such people” –

They are the kind who worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women… (2Tim. 3:6)

So this ‘kind’? Who fits that bill? We all know of the preachers in the Western world, and now developing countries too, who seem to do nothing but seek donations to their ministry, and are so often accused of charlatanry, so much that almost any pastor who makes an appeal for finances for any reason can be tarred with the same brush. It IS prevalent, isn’t it? Only this week, I happened to see a program late at night on the BBC, just as I was about to go to bed. It was Reggie Yates in South Africa, and this episode was him following one of these multi-millionaire preachers, who had come from the townships, but had created and developed his ministry to mega proportions.

(I am not going to name this man as I am not prepared to make direct accusations at any individual, just as I saw an article listing the fortunes of many of these preachers, mainly in the US – I am addressing the doctrine, the attitude, the belief that I think is unbiblical.)

Reggie Yates came from a black pentecostal background, though not a believer, and he said that he just found it wrong that a ‘man of the cloth’ should be so wealthy. This preacher (or Prophet as he called himself) had a fleet of 30 luxury cars and admitted to spending as much as £100,000 on one shopping spree for clothing, with some suits costing £7000! Truly a man of the people, and very much loved for how he went into shops and met people and posed for photos with his ‘fans’, yet he did not like Reggie’s apparent ‘lack of respect’ for him and his ministry, with his probing questions (no mention of humility there!). A young woman who followed him was questioned by Reggie about why as a poor working class woman, she would want to listen to this man; she replied “I wouldn’t want to listen to someone who had not gotten anywhere!”

Right away, there’s the problem: she viewed him as someone successful, therefore, somehow ‘blessed’ by God and someone to look up to and follow. I follow my own pastor, even though I disagree with him on many things, not because he’s ‘successful’ but because he has the qualities I seek in a church leader: compassion, care, a listening ear, a tireless worker for his congregation! THOSE are the ways in which we, as biblical believers, should value people, NOT by how much money they make! Don’t we all do it? While I never wish for my children to be in debt or in financial worry, should I praise them for making plenty of money in their vocation, or for being better, rounded, faithful followers of Christ? Is money a blessing? Well, here’s an excellent article on that from the huffington post:

http://tinyurl.com/m8hb2yv

The writer does say he is playing with semantics (meanings of words), and that is what it comes down to. I received a good rejoinder on this after sharing it on Facebook: “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.” (James 1:17)

BUT: Here’s the distinction: All these things we receive are gifts, as James says, but are they blessings? In verse 25 of the same chapter, he says “But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom and continues in it – not forgetting what they have heard but doing it – they will be blessed in what they do.”

The word for gift is dosis from the verb didomi (give). It is used when describing the gifts of grace God bestows on us, and in Jesus’ command “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matt. 10:8) It always contains the very qualities we expect of a gift, which is given in love with no counting of the cost, nor is a reward nor recompense for anything. The word for blessed is makarios which is used in the Beatitudes mentioned in the quoted article. These beatitudes were a poetic form well known to the people of Jesus’ time, much like Japanese haiku are a recognised poetic form. In Greek literature, the word is used to denote qualities belonging to certain people: ‘blessed is/are…’ and very often used for the rich, those above the cares and worries of the ordinary people (hoi polloi). However, Jesus, by using this form, turns the conceptions of the time on their head and utters blessings upon the meek, the poor in spirit, the persecuted, etc. The hearers would have been stunned at him not pronouncing blessings to be monetary or pecuniary! Or to do with birth or providence:

As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, ‘Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.’ He replied, ‘Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.’ (Luke 11:27,28)

In fact, these blessings are present from Abraham right through to seven beatitudes found in Revelation e.g.

The righteous lead blameless lives;

blessed are their children after them. (Prov.20:7)

Blessed are those
whose transgressions are forgiven,
whose sins are covered.
Blessed is the one
whose sin the Lord will never count against them. (Psalm 32:1,2)

I looked up the 46 occurrences of makarios and not one of them relates to anything to do with money or such ‘blessings’. Money is a gift bestowed on us according to what the Lord wills, not a blessing for the faithful, or a reward for making him our Lord, or an entitlement for those of us who have signed up to God’s Country Club with incumbent benefits! As a gift then, it is bestowed in the same way as any other gift; one person may have the ability to speak fluently to a gathered assembly, another the gift of writing ability, able to put their thoughts succinctly to the pen. If someone is bestowed with wealth as a gift, that is God’s will. Note that I am not saying that some are destined to be poor while others have it all (‘the rich man in his castle, the poor man at his gate, God made them high and lowly, and ordered their estate’ as the hymn says). No, that is another, more complex matter that involves politics and social policy.

As with any gift, though, God expects such to be used wisely. A preacher must not use their ‘gift of the gab’ to distract or beguile a congregation into false teaching, for instance. Many of Jesus’ parables involved servants and their given ‘talents’ or their service and how they should be used properly. Anyone given wealth must be prepared to see it used, and thus while not making individual judgements on rich people (it is a matter of conscience left to each individual to follow, as in Romans 14), I would exhort anyone with such ‘gifting’ to consider how much is really theirs to keep (or hoard, for want of a more apt word!). Hoarding more wealth for yourself than you really need has a word: greed!

My knowledge of scripture, as outlined here, will never allow me to fall into the trap of prosperity doctrine; it is false and evil, and a distraction from the true pursuit of his kingdom, which, in itself, will guarantee your needs: “But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.” (Matt. 6:33)

In the same way that I would be wary of listening to a pastor who displays a sinful life, like being given to infidelity to their marriage, or to drunkenness, or fits of wrath, so I also have grave reservations about the counsel of such a pastor who is greedy and has hoarded much and vast wealth for themselves, well beyond the needs of their families. It doesn’t take a calculator to work out that having various millions stored in a bank vault is beyond that.

Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You clean the outside of the cup and dish, but inside they are full of greed and self-indulgence. (Matt. 23:25)

Then he said to them, ‘Watch out! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; life does not consist in an abundance of possessions.’ (Luke 12:15)

There is even significant warning for such: nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. (1Cor. 6:10)

Grace be with you.

P.S. Another blogger has addressed a very similar issue linked to this in the 21st century western church:

http://walterbright.org/2014/03/27/the-culture-of-pastoral-notoriety/

Sober Saints: Epic Fail!

I must apologise at the outset: I have no intention to cause upset or annoyance, but I feel it is inevitable that this blog will do that to some readers, who may have put their faith in a book; the only book I put my faith in is the Bible, and everything else I read on spiritual matters must fall into line with that, which is the clearest way we have of discerning the mind of God. This is like one of those essays that you had to do at school or university, on a subject you really didn’t like; it was necessary to do it, but there was no real desire in your heart. This is something that needs to be done…

First I shall ‘nail my colours to the mast’: I belong to a church where our pastor is totally abstinent from alcohol and preaches this. He made it church policy that anybody in a ministry must be the same. I myself do not agree with total abstinence, and believe it is a matter of conscience which comes under the auspices of the Apostle Paul’s instructions in Romans 14. That chapter deals with the issue of ‘meat sacrificed to idols’ chiefly, but extending it to drinking alcohol is a common and rightfully valid analogy since Paul mentions it in verse 21 (which leads to a misconception about the ‘weaker brother’ that I only discovered recently myself!). However, for the sake of unity and harmony (Romans 14:19), I, as a deputy coordinator of the worship team, have remained abstinent while at the church since its inception 4 years ago. This is out of my deep respect for a pastor who has a caring heart for all his people, a concern for every believer, and a passion for souls. Harmony is difficult when believers disagree, but we all need to be mature and agreeing to differ is the best way. For me, the “I don’t agree with that so I’m going somewhere else!” mentality is far too prevalent in the modern western church. I have learnt myself that ‘being right isn’t everything’ and though I could very well, in all righteousness, take an attitude of ‘I told you so’, this would not be conducive to harmony, as well as being an expression of pure pride on my part, when pride is so unbecoming of a Christian.

Now this deals with a book entitled ‘Sober Saints’ that was doing the rounds and gaining a lot of attention in the church; it was making a biblical argument, amongst others, that all believers should be totally abstinent. I was exhorted by a fair few people to read it, and I had mixed feelings. First, I had heard things being said about its claims that left me very dubious about its conclusions, but on the other hand, I always believe it is better for one to read something for themselves instead of relying on second-hand relaying, which may have picked something up wrong along the way. Second, I had a natural inclination to not particularly wish to read something that would prove me wrong after many years (who can honestly say that they would wish to face that?), but as a Christian, if I was missing something that I needed to learn from the word of God, I simply had to be humble enough to accept it, and act accordingly. So I bought the book from amazon (after trying to borrow it from a few eager readers, who were all still devouring its contents).

I knew from the outset that I had no interest in reading any of the social arguments since I had gone over these so many, many times over the years – I believe many in the church approach the issue of addiction either skewed in one way, or from a worldly, not biblical, point-of-view; or both (though I am not taking time to go into this here). I also skipped past all the quotes from famous church founders and preachers since they might all be wrong: one could quote from dozens of Roman Catholic scholars over the centuries who extol the veneration of Mary… I was solely looking for a biblical argument that alcohol was to be avoided completely, or prohibited for true believers; that alone would convince me. Now the comments about the book were so good, I was worried that I would have to succumb to this view and admit my folly. It was in this prayerful attitude I began to read it.

However, I had only the first two chapters read when I had already become quite angry, if I am honest. The first surprising thing I had come across was that the Hebrew word yayin could mean both alcoholic and non-alcoholic wine, while tirosh represented the pressed juice fresh from the press; I accepted this as matter-of-factly as any reader would and read on, but then came across glaring errors that any biblical scholar would scream at. For instance, the author stated that the Greek LXX (Septuagint) was “the Bible used by Christ and the early church” – the LXX is a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures for use by non-Jewish readers: Christ would have attended rabbinical school as all Jewish boys did, and still do to this day, and would have learnt Hebrew, despite its death and the supersession of the similar Semitic language Aramaic. All synagogues, to this very day, contain Hebrew scrolls of the Law and Prophets. He would have had no need whatsoever to read the scriptures in a language foreign to him (it is recorded in Luke 4:16-18 that he did indeed read from the Hebrew scroll), and the Jewish church in Jerusalem would have been the same. The LXX would have been used by the gentile churches, where Greek was the lingua franca of the eastern Roman Empire, but had no place at all with people who could read the original language. I shall not go into other points about linguistic translation principles here; too long-winded even for me. If you are wondering what qualifies me to make these observations, let me assure you that I have a Bible College Diploma obtained after 3 years’ full-time study (where I studied Greek for 3 years and Hebrew for 2), as well as a degree in Linguistic Science, and most recently, a Masters degree in Language & Linguistics; I would not boast about being an expert but I thank the Lord for giving me such ability and knowledge to be able to safely say I know what I’m talking about. Much of what is presented here (and from what I was shown later by an advocate of this view) seems to hinge on the LXX, as if this is a great authority for biblical truth. It is only a translation of the original scriptures into another language centuries later, just as any modern English version, and as such, can be just as flawed, depending on the knowledge and competence of the translators. It has value for proper linguistic (chiefly diachronic or ‘historical’) scholars who seek to compare words for semantic nuances of language of that time, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the meaning of the original language (that all evangelicals accept as inspired). Such clear mistakes caused me to go back and look at the other claims with my scholar’s head firmly in place on my neck. In particular, I was to examine the meaning of yayin for myself. I then sent the author a lengthy email outlining my own findings with the proposal that once this claim of an ambiguous yayin is dispelled, the rest of his consequent biblical arguments fall flat since they are based on an initial error. The man is a busy minister and politely said he was unable to reply to me at present but would get back to me. I understood and hope he is busy with a fruitful ministry and wished him God’s blessings, sincerely. He exhorted me to read the rest of his book, but I have decided not to, which I shall explain later.

Many say it’s just a matter of interpretation; yes, interpreting scripture is often down to personal views on a reading of scripture, but as a linguist, I draw a distinction between such differing viewpoints and incorrect translation of a biblical word. If we can look at theological scholars who differ on interpretation of scripture verses, which occurs on the reading of scripture in one’s own language, let us call this the macro-level. This produces as many different doctrines over any one passage as there may be theologians, which may divide into different denominational camps, like political parties, though within these denominations there may still be dissension on minor issues (that can lead to pathetic splits over nothing!). However, at the linguistic level (the micro-level), where the meanings of words in the original languages are discussed and how they might be translated, there is very little dissension. One has only to look across various current versions of the Bible to see that the different translations are almost always consistent with only fairly minor different synonyms with little diversion in meaning, and usually representative of the time in which each was made, considering that all languages change over time. The few words that may be unclear in meaning are usually outlined in most versions as footnotes. For instance, many of the animals forbidden in the ‘food laws’ are names of animals peculiar to the semitic region that have been lost over time and we cannot be certain which particular species they refer to. Some words are translated with difficulty, true: for instance, ‘love’ in the New Testament in most English versions can refer to both phileos and agape in the Greek, and this is well-known. They have two different meanings in Greek, which are hard to express clearly in single words in English; the KJV uses ‘charity’ for agape but that has changed its meaning so much it is no longer appropriate for distinction.

However, yayin is not one of these difficult words. A source quoted to me stated that it comes from a root meaning ‘to press out’ and so refers to the juice from the winepress initially. My own research came across a claim that its root meaning is ‘to ferment’ so naturally I was eager to quote this to others since it supported my own personal view, but actually, proper academic study reveals that both of these claims are purely hypothetical (I had expressed this in my email to the author before I had the chance to obtain a proper study book and so I must apologise for ‘jumping the gun’ and retract that claim). The root of tirosh is known to be the Semitic wrt, which means to press out, but the root of yayin is really unknown, so we can lay aside any speculation here as only that. I could suggest that across most Indo-European languages there is a similarity with all words containing a -in- root, though again, I am only speculating on that. Unfortunately, it may well be the very translation of these words into English that has caused much of the confusion in the first place, since we come across terms like new wine, sweet wine, strong wine, etc. This has led to speculation again, on what these different words refer to, which is fine and understandable if one wishes to determine the nature of the words. At the micro-level, however, speculation is unacceptable: linguistics is a science, an academic discipline subject to the rigour of scrutiny by many scholars, who usually agree regardless of any denominational bias.

I went through every instance of yayin in the Old testament myself but could not find anything to make me believe that it referred to a non-alcoholic beverage in any example, save maybe for Lamentations 2, where the children do cry for bread and wine. This on its own should not change the meaning of the word since we are applying modern values to an ancient time; we may not give alcoholic drink to minors but to say that people in those times would not have done so may well just be an anachronism, and without witnesses to testify, or other sources to confirm that minors were never given any alcohol, we cannot make that claim. Even if that is granted, I then was looking at only one reference (from a peculiarly poetic piece of prophetic literature, as Lamentations is) out of around 140, that might lend itself to a retranslation. The author seems to suggest that examples of it being used in contexts of ‘the harvest of wine from the winepress’ thus describes the unfermented juice as pressed out; these are clearly simply references to the harvest of the final product, which I can only describe as a ‘temporal incongruity’ – we even use the word ‘winepress’ in English when clearly the product coming out of the press is not yet wine, but juice! The same verses sometimes speak of the harvest of oil (shemen) as if it were brought in from the olive trees, yet clearly olives (zayith) still need to be pressed. I find no argument to retranslate shemen to mean olives because this is not in contention by anyone (see Jer. 40:10 as just one example where harvests of both yayin and shemen are used in this ‘incongruous’ manner) . Linguistically it’s a dead end. And so the only possible verse left is in Lamentations 2. The author points out Hosea 4:11, where there is a single use of tirosh in an apparently intoxicating rôle, saying correctly that this is not enough to change the semantics of tirosh to include alcoholic drink. Similarly, this one verse in Lamentations (which may well be a poetic irony) where yayin appears to be non-alcoholic, is not enough to change the meaning. There is no ambiguity but for an invented one.

Let me suggest where this error may have come from: students of scripture come across all the various verses which refer to wine, where some seem to praise its qualities, while others warn of the dangers of drinking it. This seems contradictory, especially as we can see around us the terrible problems associated with alcoholism (chronic drunkenness) and alcohol abuse (‘binge-drinking’ is the modern term for it!) – a natural question is ‘can the Bible really be extolling alcoholic drink?’ and so explanations are sought. Such debate is welcome and should be looked at properly, in the light of our social problems and the prevalence of alcohol around us, but this is a HUGE debate I have neither the time nor the inclination to go into here. What has angered me is how these speculations have filtered down to the original language of scripture and sought to alter it, reinterpret it, or at least place some doubt on its meaning. This is the word of God, people! Once you try to change it, you enter very dangerous ground. We all know of many heresies that arise from poor translation: for instance, I have debated with Jehovah’s Witnesses, who say that Christ has already returned as their founder predicted, but that it was a spiritual return, unseen by the world – I point out that the word for revelation (Rev. 1:1) is apokalupteo, which literally means ‘uncovering’ or ‘revealing’ – yes, a real revelation! They can’t answer that. While yayin is a much more ‘minor’ issue, I feel that seeking to change the meaning of any original word is in the same vein as such heresies. (N.B. for some it is major, but I argue that biblically it is not, or it would have much clearer commands in the line of “thou shalt not…” – even though that would be dependent on a reading of scripture outside of grace, which is an IMMENSE topic!). So some people have concluded that these ‘positive’ verses could not refer to alcoholic drink, since alcohol is obviously evil. Wrong! Evil cannot reside in an object, it is borne from the wrong, selfish, sinful desires of our heart, which our Lord made clear (Matt.15: 10-20). And so ‘evidence’ is sought to justify this ambiguity in a word that has never been ambiguous! One only has to stop for a moment to think: if we are to argue that there is a word in scripture that has such an ambiguous meaning that we need to reinterpret practically all the translations we have, are we not setting a precedent for others to argue for changes in translation or reinterpretation of other words? What might come next? Are we not undermining the very book we base our faith on? Let us draw back from this brink; quickly!

This desire to reinterpret yayin as something ambiguous, meaning both alcoholic and non-alcoholic would clearly lead to confusion since there is no way to tell which kind each instance refers to. The argument that ‘context disambiguates’ may be used to go back to the hypothesis that where the semantics of the word are positive, it is non-alcoholic, and only alcoholic where it is negative, and this sounds fine, since ‘context disambiguates’ is a linguistic maxim, but that refers to different words which appear the same i.e. in English, we have two words spelt (homograph) and sounded (homophone) the same: ‘duck’ – one is a water bird, the other a verb denoting that one stoops down. In context, one can safely be assured that “the man had to duck and dive behind the wall” does not refer to the bird, clearly! If a golfer ‘hit an eagle’ there may be some ambiguity there IF there were actual eagles on the golf course in the line of fire of his golf balls, but 99.9% of the time, we know that he ‘scored an eagle’. To apply the same rule to one word that has no division or double meaning is a backward argument based upon an academically unfounded hypothesis. Such a proposal presented as a dissertation in any university would receive a FAIL, believe me!

I have decided not to read the rest of this book, for a very good reason. As I said, what I read angered me since I found evidence of attempts to tamper with the original words of scripture, which for me is heinous for any believer to do, regardless of the motive. I hope you can grasp the depth of my feelings from one example: I have heard readers say “you know that word means ‘wineless’” and I wondered which word was referred to. I surmised it was to do with the exhortation Paul gives to ‘overseers’ in both 1Tim.3 and Titus1 – to be ‘not given to much wine’ but that it was maybe an idiom, used figuratively (like ‘spineless’ in English which has nothing to do with actual backbones – this was the sort of error I thought I would encounter in the book, not what I actually found). But then I heard the word was the Greek naypho, which I took to be a verb, not an adjective. Looking it up, I discovered that in all five passages where it occurs it has absolutely nothing to do with alcohol, but talks about being alert so it IS purely figurative BUT that it simply means sober, the opposite of intoxication, and has NOTHING within it that would mean ‘wineless’, even if this WAS referring to alcohol. This is incredulous, spurious, sweetie mice in the head!!

I knew that I had already come close to judging the author of this book in my wrath, and judging another’s motives or heart is something that scripture CLEARLY forbids, unequivocally, unambiguously (Matt. 7:1,2; Luke 6:37;  Rom. 2:1; 1Cor. 4:5; James 4:11; 5:9; and the aforementioned Romans 14!). His motives in addressing alcohol abuse may well be pure and right, but I feel that he has found sources he was too eager to quote without recourse to proper investigation, and I have no intention of reading more of these examples or even seeking out such sources. Not conducive to my own harmony! This is why I have labelled this ‘epic fail’ – the author has clearly made an epic effort to read all he could and analyse it meticulously, but unfortunately with too eager a desire to support his own view, since it was a matter close to his heart. Clearly, the biblical argument is null. I sincerely wish him richest blessings in his work for the kingdom.

I could list the verses here, but I’ve spent enough time, honestly. I exhort you yourself to get a Strong’s concordance and look up ‘wine’ – all those with word reference 3196 refer to yayin – look them up yourself and knowing that there is NO EVIDENCE to support a view other than that it refers to standard, old-fashioned, alcoholic wine, decide for yourself what the word of God tells you; don’t just take my word for it. We are all able and empowered to read God’s word for ourselves, and we should be grateful we can!

For me, the only clear instruction regarding this is in Romans 14, where the only ambiguity Paul presents is how it falls with other matters under ‘follow your conscience’ BUT ‘don’t judge the person who does not do the same as you’ – I am forbidden to judge the tea-totaller, and they are forbidden to judge me. If you are someone who cannot control your drinking, for the sake of your own soul and body, ABSTAIN! If you do not have such a problem, but YOUR conscience tells you to abstain, then do so, please, and… I was about to say ‘be proud to be an abstainer’ but as I said before, pride is so unbecoming of a Christian.

Grace be with you.